directed by Jon Favreau

starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Edward Asner, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel

New Line

Sketch-comedy master Will Farrell’s inevitable departure from Saturday Night Live created the biggest void in the can’t-be-killed show since Eddie Murphy’s exit. However, like Murphy and many other SNL expatriates, Ferrell’s Hollywood forays — so far — have left the actor laughing all the way to the bank. Elf, Ferrell’s latest endeavor, just might place the unpredictable and enormously talented funnyman on the Mike Meyers-Jim Carrey level of universal appeal.

In Elf, Farrell plays Buddy, who, as an abandoned baby, grows up with Santa (Ed Asner) and Papa Elf (straight-faced as ever Bob Newhart) at the north pole. In a miniature world — itself an obvious homage to the Rankin-Bass claymation classics, complete with digi-mation animals and a re-interpretation of Burl Ives’ snowman — 6′ 3″ Buddy is a shades-of-Rudolph outcast, with the developmentally-stunted mind of a 12-year-old. When Papa Elf finally breaks the bad news to Buddy that he is a human, the outsized elf — clad solely in his yellow tights and felt green elf uniform — sets off to find his real father, Walter (James Caan), a NYC children’s book publishing exec who has been on Santa’s “Bad” list for quite some time. Upon finding the Big Apple — a true Island of Lost Toys — Buddy crashes dad’s office, where’s he’s mistaken for a costumed nutcase and thrown out.

Before he can be recruited into one of New York’s underground sex-slave circuits, wide-eyed Buddy is mistaken for a department-store elf, and put to work. While there, he meets gift-wrapper Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), an open-minded lass with a songbird voice. Unlike Rudolph’s Hermie, Buddy’s sexual preferences are clear-cut, and it’s love at first sight. Hiding in the store after closing time, unimaginably hyper Buddy, fueled by an elf’s diet of sugary snacks, transforms the corporate monstrosity into a winter wonderland — complete with a huge Lego diorama of downtown NYC — in a matter of hours. Undeterred by Walter’s cruelty, Buddy persists in his pursuit of the man; after a surprising DNA test, Walter takes him home to stay with his wife and school-aged son (Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Tay). Walter’s convinced that a trauma of some sort has led his new-found son to believe that he’s an elf; he tries to indulge Buddy’s role-playing fantasy, but his patience is paper-thin. Hilarity ensues as Buddy, thrilled to have a home, spends his days making rocking horses out of furniture, gobbling maple syrup, and being terrified by the sounds that the furnace makes. Prodded by his new brother, Buddy tries his hand at romance, and he and Jovie have a first date. But Walter — himself at the verge of a mental meltdown at the office — finally can tolerate no more, and disaster strikes.

Elf is curiously and alternately inventive and reverential, managing to be laugh-out-loud funny without utilizing the kind of humor that would fly over a kid’s head. While director/actor Jon Favreau was clearly striving for “instant holiday classic” status, the movie manages to fall short of that lofty goal. The opening “north pole” chapter could have either been funnier, or shorter. Conversely, the rest of the flick could’ve used a well-written extra ten minutes, with another scene dedicated to the Buddy-girlfriend sub-plot, and more time spent intensifying the chemistry between Ferrell and Caan — Caan’s menacing persona, which obviously got him this role, is somewhat under-utilized. Set up to be a Scrooge/Grinch type who’s destined to crumble, Caan’s heart grows three sizes a little too easily.

However, this cinematic sleigh ride has the best of intentions. Elf does a good job of pushing all the right buttons, as far as seasonal sentimentality goes; at its fuzzily warm, storybook conclusion, theater-goers will wish Thanksgiving didn’t stand in the way of digging out the lights and tinsel.

Elf Movie: http://www.elfmovie.com/

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